Properties, Features, Attributes: an Overview of the Problem of Universals

If you’ve looked at any other article on my site, chances are strong that in it I use the term ‘features’ or ‘properties’. I don’t tend to speak of ‘attributes’, but, if I did, it would be in a way that is synonymous with the other two. I tend to talk about features or properties of objects or things, and such a notion is so basic and simple to my way of thinking that I hardly give it a second thought when I invoke it to make a larger point (as in, say, my doozy of a post about Leibniz’ Law ) . However, as is typical when invoking oft-used but basic notions as properties, there may be competing views about what they are and how they operate, which may lead to ambiguity and misunderstandings.

Indeed, competing views about what properties are and how they work is famously laid out in ancient times between Plato and Aristotle. And a more recent approach that is also popular today was provided by William of Ockham in the Middle Ages. I want to cover these three views of properties and hopefully demystify them for the mystified (of which I myself have long been mystified, and still may be: read on). In making these views clear to my mind, in the end I find that they all have something positive to contribute towards lending a comprehensive worldview.

First, the target. What are properties, just as a common starting point? Let’s consider a quality of any object—a red ball, say. A red ball will have some properties. Red, for one. Round is likely another property a red ball has. So far so good—a red ball has the properties of being red and being around. And such things as these are the target of our queries.

The questions the three views I cover here address are: how does the thing—the ball in this case—have the properties it has? And how does a different ball have those same properties—of being red and round in our case?

The short answer is that Plato thinks that properties exist independently of the objects that have them as eternal and ideal entities (even reasons, as Augustine presents them) called ‘Forms’, and that different objects can have the same property because the two objects are instantiating the same Form; Aristotle, on the other hand, thinks that properties exist in a way that depends on the objects that have them, and that different objects can have the same property because the properties are just particular substances of things; while Ockham, in stark contrast with both of them, concludes (using different terms than what I use to present his view here) that properties are just our mental concepts and that material objects don’t really have properties, but we think they do by using the same concept.

The two views that I have had the most trouble making clear to my satisfaction are both Plato’s and Ockham’s. If Plato’s forms are conceived of as reasons or ideas—in the divine mind, say—as was common for Platonists to do, then Plato’s and Ockham’s views both share a mentalistic element, one where Plato’s version is of a mind external to us and Ockham’s is not.

With the Platonic view, one gains knowledge of properties through a revelation of the forms and the subsequent contemplation of them. The view of cognition that naturally follows from this is that we come to understand red balls of various places and shapes and sizes because we have been acquainted with the Form as revealed in some particular red ball, and have contemplated it sufficiently and now have a generalized understanding.

On Aristotle’s account, how we come to have a generalized understanding of some particular object and its features is that we get acquainted with the substance or material object of the red ball and then form a concept (generalized idea) about red balls generally .

On Ockham’s view, we come to have a generalized understanding of some particular object and its features by acquiring the concept of the red ball, but this concept does not represent some actual feature of the external object itself nor does it share some part with it. The features of the object are only of the cognizer’s mind.

If I am more or less correct in how I have summarized these views, then one may jump back and forth between them depending on whether or not a divine mind is believed in or not, or whether or not objects are viewed as having the properties of redness and roundness. But most realists would have great difficulty (maybe even find it incoherent) in viewing say, that the red ball does not have the property of redness or roundness, but is only red and round insofar as our concepts confer them upon the thing, whatever it is without being red and round. The view that both Plato and Ockham seem to share, at least as I’ve presented it, is that there is this sort of a God-knows-what thing, that then gets conferred with a property, either by a platonic Form or by our concepts respectively, and that that is now the thing that we have an immediate understanding of—for example, an understanding of the ball as red and round.

However, such are dualistic views, or views that make a stark divide between what goes on externally vs. what goes on in our minds, generally. Aristotle places features and properties square in the objects themselves, and not either merely in the cognizer’s mind, nor in the Divine Mind. I favor Aristotle’s view here for the same reason I favor a view of objects that includes their having, in a constitutive sense, qualitative properties—because an object that is without features is a God-knows-what kind of a thing which I believe cannot even be conceived.

However, in one way I may be being heavy-handed with Plato and Ockham here. Indeed, a comprehensive worldview may combine elements from all three: that is, some of our concepts (e.g. mathematical) may have life in the divine mind of God through a form of revelation or contemplation (provided He exists), and some may merely be alive as it were in the human mind (e.g. fictional entities), and the rest can have their being in particular objects themselves. (Indeed several medieval philosophers combined Platonic and Aristotelian accounts (1)).


(1) A good in-depth article on much of what this post covers and more: The Medieval Problem of Universals


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